Monthly Archives: August 2019

CABILDO Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI SWOONS OVER SWASHBUCKLING  AT GRIMEBORN

Director Emma Jude Harris “couldn’t believe her luck” when she discovered Cabildo, the only opera by pioneering composer Amy Beach: her witty, dynamic production of this passionate chamber piece glows with humanity and joy. Set in the modern day, but incorporating an extensive period flashback to 1812, Cabildo tells the story of Mary (expressive soprano Helen Stanley, in gingham shirt, ripped denim and cowboy heels), trapped in a loveless marriage to Tom (a sonorous Joseph Buckmaster, resplendent in a TRUMP 2020 baseball cap) as they visit the Cabildo, a museum you can still explore today in New Orleans, amongst a small group of tourists. The Barker (eyecatching Beru Tessema) tells the tale of Pierre Lafite, a “handsome, daredevil pirate” who was imprisioned there: Mary, her imagination afire, remains behind the group in Lafite’s cell, and drifts off to sleep. Mary’s subsequent dream, or vision, of Lafite becomes the main body of the opera: we find him imprisioned, desperate for news of the Falcon, the ship on which his lady-love Valerie was travelling, but is feared lost. Meanwhile, Lafite is in prison ironically suspected of Valerie’s murder, thanks to a bracelet she gave him as a secret love token, the truth of which he refuses to reveal for honour’s sake. Dominique, a servant (a sweet-toned Alexander Gebhard), arrives to say the fate of the Falcon is uncertain, but America needs Lafite and all his pirate crew to defend New Orleans against the British. Dominique says Lafite’s prison door ‘will be opened’: but the person who opens it is actually the dripping, drowned ghost of Valerie, driving her lover on to deeds of heroism in her name, in one of the most romantic and erotically charged duets I’ve ever seen outside of Wagner. Tragically, as the passion soars, we suspect we are veering away from history into poor Mary’s fantasy of what love could or should be: Amy Beach herself was married at 18 to a husband 24 years older than her, who forbade her from ever studying composition formally. This depiction of a woman whose imagination is a wild ocean of creativity, but whose life is a humdrum prison created by men, must be a self-portrait of Beach on some level: we also might think of George Eliot’s great heroines Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolen Harleth. Harris draws a poignant contrast between men in the ‘real world’ at the beginning (leering, oafish, and predatory, taking upskirting photos when a girl is distracted) and the hero of Mary’s desire: sincere, brave, honourable, and utterly fictional. Welcome to single life in the 21st century.

Emma Jude Harris’ approach is full of colour and clever physical detail: she also has a nice eye for humour. When Pierre Lafite throws his greatcoat to the ground in despair, a mesmerised Mary snatches it up to bury her face in its folds, like a groupie at a rock gig, sliding to the floor in an hysteria of passion. Alistair Sutherland’s rich bass and magnetic stage presence make for an exceptionally compelling Lafite, full of tense machismo and inner idealism, a romantic fantasy of a pirate straight off the pages of Frenchman’s Creek – I think swooning is allowed. Alys Roberts’ delicate yet commanding Valerie exerts a hypnotic power over him, her penetrating, elegant soprano brimming with emotion, and the chemistry between the two feels cracklingly real. John Warner directs a trio from the piano with characteristic flair. It’s a blast.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI 

Box office: 020 7503 1646  (To 31 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

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THE ENTERTAINER             Curve, Leicester & touring 

BITTERLY BRITISH

 

   It was  a good mix of ages in the Curve audience,  so perhaps a  public service to remind the rising generation, awash in Brexindignation,  that Utterly-Despairing-Of Britain-Especially-Tories is not new.  It’s been a tradition ever since 18c cartoonists mocked John Bull.   John Osborne”s disgusted play about a washed-up, alcoholic  comedian whose son is at war dates from 1957 – Suez & Macmillan –   but Sean O’Connor    has hauled it forwards to the 1980s  – Thatcher and the Falklands.   Though to be honest,  if you’re going to move it on  three decades  you might as well go further and drag it right up to Blair and Iraq, and make the vaudevillian into a game show host…

  

      The story of Archie Rice,   his downtrodden wife Phoebe ,  old school Dad Billy,  son at war and stepdaughter seeing through him has been hailed as a masterpiece from Tynan to Billington and beyond.    It’s last big outing was in Kenneth Branagh’s London season,  and I have to admit I found that one  flat and dated,  and unkindly snarled about  the “ long and tedious line of male ranters who confuse their own depression, sexual incontinence and inadequate misogyny as a state-of-the-nation vision.”     Partly the problem there was that Branagh is no Ken Dodd:  the stage-interludes should convince that this was at least once a comedy pro.    In O”Connor’s production Shane Richie (famed from  EastEnders, TV hosting and tabloid gossip)  is a lot better:  in a spangly purple jacket  he evokes all the horrid hectic desperation of shiny-floor show hosts.  He’s as nasty as Bernard Manning,  as knowing as Howerd, as scampering as Forsyth but without the smile.    

       

           The director-adaptor has a brilliant eye for newer songs:  Rice’s  rendering of  the Eurovision “I was born with a smile on my face” positively chills the blood,  as does his final “Those were the days” .  We also get a storming second half opening – against Sun and Mirror headlines about the Falklands War, riots and unemployment – as Richie in a Thatcher costume does Noel Coward’s “Bad Times Just Around the Corner”.   A song which Coward, of course, wrote in gaiety to mock the post-war gloomsters of 1952.   Here,   Osborne’s Archie Rice means every word of it   as he snarls “It’s as clear as crystal From Bridlington to Bristol That we can’t save democracy and we don’t much care”.  That got a laugh, on Proroguement Day.  The other notable response from the stalls was gasps at the heavy-duty sexism, misogyny and racism of our hero.  “Owwwww!!” cried a young girl next to me.

   

            It’s cleverly done,   if sour-tasting.   Richie is also good in the offstage scenes, in the claustrophobic family home with old Billy –  Pip Donaghy giving it the full  Alf Garnett but showing an older decency behind it –  and Sara Crowe is an excellent Phoebe,  the eternal demonstration that  behind every grumpy bastard you’ll find  a woman trying to make things nice again.   It is a bit one-note – hectic, angry,  drunken, hopeless – but that’s Osborne for you.  

      O’Connor ramps up the hatred of pointless wars and deaths for the Union flag,  relishing that Osbornian question “Why do we just lap it all up?  Is it just for a hand waving at you from a golden coach?”     Richie has genuine depth when he steps forward for that terrifying admission of how dead he is behind the eyes. And I had forgotten the best line of all, which is his explanation of how the great comedians work, as his former hero Eddie did, in a denser version of the commonplace,   seeming  “to be like the general run of people,  but more like them than they are”.    So not sorry I went.  And it’s a bit of theatre archaeology everyone should know.   But I needed a drink afterwards, and I still don’t think it’s that great a play.    

 

 

Touring to 30 November, Milton Keynes next

dates & box office   www.theentertainerplay.co.uk  

rating three

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TREEMONISHA Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS JOPLIN TROUBLINGLY FUN

Scott Joplin was rightly proud of Treemonisha, an opera for which he wrote both libretto and score; it was never fully staged in Joplin’s lifetime, much to his pain, but its eventual premiere in 1972 led to Joplin being awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976. Musically, Treemonisha is a rare and precious artefact, preserving the sounds and rhythms of slave songs in the cotton fields which Joplin would have known from childhood, something few other composers have ever been in a position to do from known experience – and then bring to an opera stage. It’s a gorgeous score, always easy on the ear and rich with dense umami harmonies throughout, especially in Joplin’s gifted choral writing, with several animated numbers recalling Joplin’s prowess in ragtime. The opera is surprisingly light, given that it depicts life on a plantation eighteen years after the abolition of slavery: a community of freed slaves struggles to shape their new society, besieged by the various temptations of alcoholism, religious fervour, superstition and greed. When the educated young girl Treemonisha is stolen by some “conjurors”, part way between pedlars and witch doctors, the village rise up in fury to avenge her: but Treemonisha herself pleads for mercy for her captors, reminding everyone that to return bad deeds for bad leaves us no better than those who tried to hurt us in the first place. Persuaded to choose the better moral path, the village leave off their vigilante justice, and proclaim Treemonisha leader. The opera closes with a joyous dance celebrating the fact that happiness is restored to all: “The Slow Drag”.

Spectra Ensemble’s production for Grimeborn is as accomplished an account of Treemonisha as you could ever hope to see. The cast is excellent, with wonderful singing across the board. Grace Nyandoro’s cutesy Treemonisha doesn’t have much dramatic depth, though Nyandoro’s soprano is startlingly pretty; Samantha Houston’s tired, bluesy Monisha is much more sophisticated. Caroline Modiba’s Lucy is beautifully drawn, Modiba’s smooth, appealing voice making you wish Lucy had a bigger part. Rodney Earl Clarke takes a brilliant double role as the gruff, sceptical alcoholic Ned and the intoxicatingly enthusiastic Parson Alltalk, an early operatic version of Bishop Michael Curry. Edwin Cotton’s charming Remus bounces around the stage after Treemonisha like a gleeful puppy, his warm tenor thrilling at times, tender at others. Njabulo Madlala feels like true luxury casting for Zodzetrick, the conjuror whose spurious trade in “bags o’ luck” earns him Treemonisha’s displeasure at the outset, Madlala’s well-rounded baritone effortlessly filling the Arcola. The chorus of Aivale Cole, Deborah Aloba, Devon Harrison and Andrew Clarke (also bringing noticeable charisma to the smaller role of Andy) are all stunning. Director Cecilia Stinton has worked hard, with choreographer Ester Rudhart, to foment action and tension on stage, keeping the audience’s attention focused through the numbers: all the characters feel as real as they can, and seem to inhabit a real world, thanks to Raphaé Memon’s elegantly restrained design, using packing crates, a washing line and a rather troubling tree (which opens festooned with manacles and a noose) to suggest the lost world of a plantation, and people, abandoned by the ‘white folks’.

A thoroughly accomplished account, and musically delicious: but it is hard to ignore the fact that Treemonisha is a troublingly naïve piece to view from a post-colonial standpoint today. One exhilaratingly dark moment comes when Treemonisha, finding her captors bound, furiously orders the village to “set them free”: it only takes seconds for the penny to drop, across the stage, that every single one of them knows what it is like not to be free. Their subsequent choice of the moral high ground is noble; their election of Treemonisha, laudable and groundbreaking in its time. But Joplin – perhaps understandably – shies away from driving his point home, and “The Slow Drag” feels like an intellectually flat end, fun though it is musically. Treemonisha has been educated, but her first act as leader is just to get everyone dancing again; this can’t help but feel frustrating. The earlier part of the opera only refers to their situation in the most glancing terms; the noose and the manacles are helpful visual reminders of the full context of the piece, because you don’t hear it very loudly from Joplin. Stinton wisely lets Joplin’s vision be, rather than writing the subtext large: the very fact he didn’t feel he could say more about slavery and its legacy in this opera speaks volumes, and troubles you for days afterwards.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646  (To 31 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

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HOTSPUR /PIERROT LUNAIRE Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI MARVELS AT THE OPERATIC POTENTIAL OF SIGNDANCE

The double bill of Gillian Whitehead’s Hotspur with Schoenberg’s great Modernist Pierrot Lunaire is the first outing for innovative opera company formidAbility, which seeks to bring disabled and non-disabled professional artists together on (and off) the opera stage. Accessibility is at the heart of the project, building features which will make opera intelligible to disabled audiences into the very fabric of every performance, rather than bolting an interpreter onto the stage for a night or two (usual practice in most opera houses). This is a noble aim: and the outcome can benefit any audience, as was clear on their opening night, when formidAbility gave us the privilege of seeing the first ever opera production to include Signdance, a highly aestheticised form of sign language created for the theatre stage, at Grimeborn.

If this all sounds a bit experimental – it is. But, like most really useful scientific breakthroughs, it seems obvious in retrospect. Opera and dance have long been friends, and using a dancer to express a singer’s inner feelings, doppelgänger style, is not a new concept. The flowing physical lyricism of sign language, meanwhile, is a dance-like performance of meaning. formidAbility showed convincingly that Signdance can work brilliantly in opera: dancers Isolte Avila and David Bower added beauty and emotional resonance to Hotspur and Pierrot Lunaire respectively, in minimalist, intense settings directed and designed by Sara Brodie. However, like most early experiments, the formula is far from perfect yet.

Hotspur is a short series of five tiny monodramas depicting the inner monologue of Elizabeth Mortimer, wife of Henry “Hotspur” Percy, as he campaigns his way around 14th century Northumberland. Fleur Adcock’s poems are glorious: superb lines like “The field of battle is a ravening flood,” and “A heavy price he paid /For juggling with thrones” are interleaved with the repeating refrain, “There is no safety, there is no shelter,” as Hotspur’s lust for political warfare thrusts Elizabeth into ever greater danger at home. With poetry of this quality, the meaning of each passage extends far beyond the sum of its words, and Isolte Avila’s elegant, expressive Signdancing feels like a natural development of the libretto. Joanne Roughton-Arnold’s clear, forensic and cool soprano is spellbinding, as is her mix of wifely anxiety and queenly composure, confessed with appealing frankness. Whitehead’s score is limpidly clear, distinctive, and feels led by texture: we hear the sounds of nature, battle, and fear. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s certainly an evocative one. So, plenty to capture us on stage: but frustratingly, Whitehead is not immune to the perennial pitfalls of setting English to music, and so with great irony, given the production’s fundamental commitment to accessibility, Hotspur didn’t land as a plot. We needed surtitles, or at least Adcock’s poems printed in the programme, to get to the bottom of what Elizabeth was facing. The twirling dynamism of the signdancing could also be hard for deaf audience members to follow, with spectators on three sides of the open stage.

Pierrot Lunaire is rather more of an acquired taste, perhaps to be acquired by eating a hearty breakfast of nails, or bashing your ears with iced rocks daily. Joanne Roughton-Arnold proved to be a brilliant exponent of the sprechstimme style demanded by Schoenberg of his performer, using her spoken voice rhythmically to reach the myriad range of pitches and tones of this severely challenging piece. Conductor Scott Wilson navigated his way calmly through the seeming chaos, his ensemble slick and responsive at every bar. David Bower’s mischievous, devious and often desperate Pierrot was full of pathos, Bower’s lithe, dynamic performance recalling the rich tradition of Pierrot as a mime. But Giraud’s poems have a demented nastiness at their core which makes them difficult to stage convincingly, even with this much skill to hand: with surtitles provided, we were clearer on meaning, but meaning is often meaningless in this surreal, formless piece. Meanwhile, the flapping cuffs of Bower’s soft, dark Pierrot suit could obscure his signing for deaf spectators, and the decision to send him up onto a platform blocked by a huge pillar from a third of the audience for much of the latter part of the piece was a serious problem.

This experiment has only just started: formidAbility has already unearthed something of great promise for opera’s future. It has also created new problems of stagecraft to solve. But musical and visual quality are already there, along with a remarkable ensemble feel. Exciting.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (To 1 September)

A formidAbility production in collaboration with Sign Dance Collective, the Rationale Method, Golden Chord Braille Music Transcription Service, Wycombe Arts Centre and 73, part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Three

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EDITH IN THE BEGINNING Sutton Hoo

A STRANGE RESURRECTION, BETWEEN WARS

 

    A red sun was setting beyond the trees as we gathered around a square, isolated house in the golden-hour splendour.    Here the land rises above the river Deben,  and with medieval man’s arrival artificially rose higher  into grassy mounds.  In the greatest of these barrows slept, for a thousand years,  Raedwald the king:    coffined in the long ship dragged up from the water and  surrounded by treasure.  From this quiet earth in the 1930s rose  gold and jewels,  a sword and helmet, intricate brooches and pins, platters and drinking-horns.   This is Sutton Hoo, which  was called  “England’s Little Egypt”. 

 

      The story of its finding feels as domestic and workaday as the burial was extravagant and splendid.   The house belonged to Mrs Edith Pretty, a Colonel’s widow, former suffragist and WW1 nurse with one small son born late in her life.  Perhaps because her father had been interested in archeology,  perhaps (so legend says) because one night she dreamed of Anglo-Saxon warriors rising from the mounds,  in 1938 she recruited Basil Brown : a former farmworker and self-taught archaeologist from Ipswich museum ,.  In 1939 the first ship rivet was found.   The British museum moved in , and Brown was  sidelined.  By the end of 1939 the massive treasure was up;  Mrs Pretty donated it to the British Museum, the largest ever private gift.    As  war approached, the trench was backfilled and the army used the site .  Mrs Pretty was offered a CBE by Churchill, and refused. She died in 1942.  

      

          There is meat here for tremendous drama and personal interaction:  the moment of discovery, the class-awkward relationship flowering between the rich lady and the meticulous, spiky Basil Brown,   the long grief of widowhood assuaged by the marvel.  There’s  the sidelining of Brown by the London experts,  and overarching it all the simple wonder of a king who slept in his treasure-ship  thousand years below the Suffolk grass.  To put on a play  on the very site  – as Stuff of Dreams  has done – was always going to be special.   

       This is not quite a review, because it only had three nights’ run and is over,  and also because, to be honest,  what Karen Forbes has done feels like a work in progress: albeit one whose progress I would love to follow and see.   The construction is odd: some things work very well, like the book-ending of it by Brown bringing flowers to her grave,  and a rather marvellous dream sequence  where  Dawn Brindle as Queen Raedwald wanders in,  pinches an apple,  remarks that she never quite “got” Christianity,  drops her brooch obligingly into the latest seed-tray or rubble which Basil is going to look in next,   and  vogues off bringing shivers to the spine with  a folk ballad affirming, as the light fades,   “He shall not dwell in darkness” .

       Other aspects are sometimes frustrating.  Forbes burdens her cast with overlong  monologues, sometimes rhymed;  when Kiara Hawker as Edith reads her late husband’s wartime letters it is useful in pinning down the period, the uneasy 30’s. and works well, but when he appears as a ghost in a monologue about the horse he took to war,  the play grinds to a halt.  Especially as we are by now interested in tantalizing details: as Ivan Wilkinson’s excellent, gruffly Suffolk Basil Brown explains  how the soil changes as grains of bone or iron dilute it.  We just long for a catharsis,  for him to find something as he shakes out fragments in his seed-tray.  Indeed the moments of first discoveries are almost prudishly ignored or underplayed:  the great sword is simply mentioned in Brown’s presentation at the drinks party.  

     

   And so is the difficulty, which still rankles in Suffolk,   of the local expert’s job being taken over by haughty Londoners.   At one point Edith says how tactlessly she spoke to him,  and how she regrets it,  but we never see a moment of that, or know why,   and remain a touch puzzled. 

    I wanted it to be better. But it may yet be.  Wilkinson is good as Brown,  and Hawker catches a mournful, determined, ladylike tone,  suggesting depths in Edith it would be good to explore.  And anyway it is a marvellous thing to have sat in the sunset on that hill above the river,   thinking of Raedwald’s strange resurrection.  I hope this is not its only outing as a theatre.    

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AURORA Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS DIMNESS RATHER THAN DAWN AT GRIMEBORN

If Aylin Bozok is directing anything at Grimeborn, I always try to go. I’ve been absolutely blown away by her past productions: her powerfully considered, exquisitely poised approach is always rich in symbolism, intensely crafted in detail, and beautifully acted. Grimeborn has seen some wonderful opera from Bozok in recent years: her Pelléas et Mélisande and Werther there remain some of the most hauntingly memorable accounts of those works I’ve seen on any stage. Noah Mosley’s Aurora channels several themes at which Bozok excels: it’s a fairytale full of brutal characters, playing with questions of destiny, fate and love, human greed versus nature, and the timeless opposition of male and female. Taking a monochrome palette for Holly Piggott’s design, characters appear on a plain stage in pale, softly sculptural versions of eighteenth-century dress, with a gloriously billowing many-caped cloak for the King of Loreda that any Georgette Heyer hero would strangle his valet for. Bozok’s visual language is characteristically controlled and resonant: characters who are in sympathy with nature, for example, ‘bleed’ earth on stage, explained in a programme note which carefully delineates her overall vision for the piece.

So Aurora, thanks to Bozok and Piggott, looks gorgeous. It also has a great cast, headed up by Andrew Tipple as the grief-stricken King who, having lost his wife to suicide, is desperate to prevent his deeply depressed daughter going the same way. Tipple gives a mesmerising and sophisticated performance full of natural drama, trembling with unresolved anguish at one moment, prickling with uncontrollable fury at the next, as his ever more forceful attempts to save his daughter only serve to drive her further from him. Tipple’s honeyed, yet accurate bass and subtle, expressive acting are a joy. Katherine Aitken is a delight as the dynamic Wild Woman to whom he turns for help, her body language sparky and semi-animalistic, her soprano full, clear and warm. Isolde Roxby has a harder task with the eponymous heroine Aurora, an unlikeably bitter, selfish princess, but skilfully brings her on an emotionally believable journey, finding an adolescent, selfish inner truth in her defiance against the world (as symbolised by her father). Dominic Bowe’s winsome Prince doesn’t get much of a chance to establish himself; Magid El Bushra has much more fun with two smaller parts, a catty, camp suitor for Aurora and a marvellous owl (also the best costume, a pillar of dark cloth with a resplendent headdress of feathers). The chorus are slick and effective when on stage, less convincing off. Jean-Max Lattemann’s vocally piercing, stentorian Mountain Witch was a difficult listen, and an awkward presence in the piece; but that wasn’t Lattemann’s fault.

The trouble is that, despite excellent design and direction, and a committed cast, Aurora is let down by two key things: libretto and score. Elisabetta Campeti’s plot begins with a couple of interesting ideas (nature as a reciprocal power relationship in which we must participate responsibly; the lasting family impact of suicide), but these are unfortunately mixed in with many boring old tropes: feisty princess constrained by angry father, rich elite sneering at nature… Worst of all, it culminates in a princess being chained to a rock, and when liberated (more by accident than design), what should she do but fall in love with a passing prince, who is charmed not by her personality, or her abilities, but by? Her appearance. This was when I completely lost patience with Aurora: we need to go forward, not backward, and perpetrating harmful stereotypes in which women need to be “saved” or defined by their interactions with men is just demented on a modern stage. Campeti chickens out of saying anything profound, which leaves Bozok with a mess to clear up that is hard to disguise. The libretto itself is dire, verging on Pearl Fishers levels of banality (we even get “every cloud has a silver lining” – without irony). Noah Mosley’s schizophrenic score lurches across a myriad of styles, often delivering a musical mood directly at odds with the action on stage, which I found irritating rather than interesting. The occasional moments of jazz could have been used in a fascinating way, but in fact, felt like Mosley had run out of ideas and was throwing the kitchen sink at the problem, or was just irresponsibly making musical mischief – neither helps form a coherent or compelling narrative act. Mosley is just as callous with his good ideas as his bad ones: one brilliant melody, a lilting Middle Eastern aria for the Owl, created temporary magic on stage, only to be summarily destroyed moments later as the score rocketed off in yet another direction. The whole evening felt rather like being stuck inside a musical expression of Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator, or watching a child juggle with the entire contents of a bedroom. Noah Mosley, conducting, seemed to be getting what he wanted from his orchestra, who played with joyful aplomb, but this score sat stubbornly between us and the opera, rather than carrying us into it.

Bozok’s directorial skill ironically highlights these flaws, her instinct for inner meaning coming up empty-handed against the eventual floundering of the opera as a piece of meaningful drama, though she put as much emotional gloss on the disappointing ending as she dared. I can see why the piece initially tempted her: but ultimately, this superb director can achieve far more with a meatier, better reasoned piece.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (22-25 August only)

A Bury Court Opera production, part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Three

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ORIGAMI SOUNDSCAPES /THE CRANE Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS NOT MUCH UNFOLDING AT GRIMEBORN

I have to admit – I’m a sucker for a bit of rarefied Japanese elegance on stage in almost any context: the very mention of Noh theatre always makes my ears prick up. So, when Grimeborn proffered Verity Lane’s double bill of bilingual English/Japanese pieces inspired by Lane’s time in Japan, drawing on ancient Japanese folklore, I knew instantly what I was doing with my Friday night. Or, at least, I thought I did.

This performance proved very difficult to get hold of, in more ways than one. The first part opened with a messy stage strewn with crumpled paper, bowls of various sizes, drums, and two small fishtanks filled with water, with Japanese graffiti scrawled on many objects in neon paint. Onto the stage arrived Coco Sato, our live origamist, accompanied by Kiku Day to provide an atmospheric accompaniment on shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute whose breathy, breathless and occasionally shrieking whistle will be familiar to you if you’ve ever curled up with a good (old) samurai film. The ‘Soundscapes’ began in earnest with narration by Tomoko Komura: although loud and clear, her English was so rapid I found it hard to cotton on to most of the poems, which seemed to be aiming at mystical beauty (the nightingale, the owl, and the crane) but generally erred on the side of incomprehensible kitsch. Into this by now slightly scrappy arrangement, with remarkable calmness, danced percussionist Beibei Wang. Wang was the undoubted highlight of the night: her intense, focused musicality was simply extraordinary, part percussion, part theatre, part dance. There seemed to be nothing on stage Wang couldn’t turn into an interesting sound: her fingers flashed and flew as she splashed and paddled water, scrumpled brown paper, and kept on rhythmically drumming on anything and everything she could find. Now, the other elements (origami, flute, spoken poetry) became distractions from Wang’s sinuous, agile brilliance; despite sincerity and commitment on all sides, there were several moments when it all felt dangerously on the edge of being silly. Perhaps less might have achieved more.

As the final Soundscape culminated in a large paper origami crane flapping off the stage, the interval came as a surprise: given that we had seen a crane, had we now seen everything? With no more than a bare cast list to go on, it was difficult to know what more there could be; but ‘The Crane’ proper began in the second half, and here the wheels sadly came off altogether. Some elegant animations by Rowan O’Brien of cranes flying over snowy mountains created lovely visual tone, but the narrative impact of whatever was supposed to be going on was thoroughly deadened by the absence of translation provided (unusual for Grimeborn), the extensive portions in Japanese proving frankly impenetrable, rather than intriguingly mysterious. Again, Beibei Wang was a virtuoso spectacle, the best drumming I have ever seen on any stage, opera or rock, but if you were not already familiar with the folktale of the crane, you really were none the wiser as to its plot, or its lesson. I came away frustrated, rather than mystified.

Grimeborn is an ideal platform for experimental pieces: this was a well-intentioned creative act on the very edge of opera, which showcased some remarkable talent, but ultimately failed to fly. However, innovation is always disorientating: Verity Lane should be commended for trying something new. With a little more refinement, and clearer narrative guiding for an English audience, she might really be onto something.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (23-24 August only)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Two

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